“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Blaise Pascal
Practicing meditation for the last ten years has been one of the most positive and impactful habits in my life. Along the way, I’ve been asked many questions about what meditation is, and why people do it. My goal is to help answer some of these questions, and share how adopting this centuries-old practice is achievable, and beneficial to anyone.
Is meditation religious?
Meditation is typically associated with Eastern religious traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. It was born out of a religious context, but by no means does the practice have anything to do with religion. You can practice meditation without it conflicting with your beliefs, or lack of beliefs.
Is it too “Woo Woo”?
Even though meditation isn’t necessarily religious, some people are turned off by the “spiritual” connotation they associate with meditation. This concern may be hard for some people to overcome. However, if you practice meditation, you are in the company of many organizations and individuals who you wouldn’t associate with being “spiritual”. Some examples include, The U.S. Department of Defense, Neuroscientist Sam Harris, and Harvard University. Some studies have even shown that regular meditation may lower your blood pressure.
Is meditation about thinking “nothing”?
Meditation is not about thinking “nothing”. It's not even about relaxation. Meditation is about the intentional cultivation of mindfulness.
So what is mindfulness then?
What is this most important thing of all? It’s called self-observation. What’s that? It means to watch everything in you and around you as far as possible and watch it as if it were happening to someone else. What does that last sentence mean? It means that you do not personalize what is happening to you. It means that you look at things as if you have no connection with them whatsoever. - Anthony de Mello
Your goal is to notice what you notice. That's all. And that's something very special. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say a family member says something rude to you that makes you angry. In a normal circumstance, you may find yourself snapping back at them as an expression of your anger. This makes the situation even worse for both you and them. Mindfulness allows you to slow down. With a well-cultivated sense of mindfulness, you can first notice that you are angry. Then you can reflect on your anger before reacting, and can decide if snapping back at your relative truly is the best response. You’ll find that when you become aware of your emotions before acting upon them, you are able to respond more calmly. Put simply, mindfulness helps you control your response to your emotions, rather than having your emotions control you.
Anthonly de Mello provides these four steps to achieving a state of mindfulness:
- Identify negative feelings in you
- Understand that they are in you, not in the world
- Do not see them as an essential part of "I"; these things come and go
- Understand that when you change, everything changes
“But I tried meditation and and I'm not good at it”
You might be like many people who tried meditation after hearing about the great results others are having. However, most people will try mediation only to quickly abandon the practice.
"My mind just wandered.”
“I couldn't focus on my breath for more than a few seconds."
“I’m not good at it.”
I don't blame these people for quitting. The failure was not with them, but with the instructions they were given. Failing to focus on your breath is the practice. At some point you will notice you are not focusing on your breath, can make note of it, and return to focusing on breathing. The moment you notice your mind wandering is the moment of mindfulness. This is the muscle you are strengthening: the noticing. If you can sit still and focus only on your breath for two hours without interruption, then you may already be enlightened! But if you are like most meditation practitioners, you are constantly failing to fully concentrate on your breath, and are OK with that. The only way to truly fail at meditation is to give up on the practice entirely.
Is it a quick fix?
Meditation is not an antidote or a pill for instant relief. It is a practice. It’s like exercise. If you lift weights once, you don't expect yourself to be able to move a boulder the next day. The same goes for meditation. It is a continual practice that builds upon itself over time. A consistent habit of meditation is the important thing. Meditation will not be effective if you only implement it sporadically or only when you are in a tough life situation.
How should I get started?
Anyone can learn to meditate, but it is important to select the right approach depending on your personality and learning style.
For Skeptics: If you are still sceptical about why you should learn meditation, I highly recommend the book Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright. The author himself was totally skeptical of meditation, but through his research became convinced of its benefits. This book will explain the science and reasoning behind why meditation is effective. After reading this book, pick your preferred learning style from the list below.
For Readers: If you learn best by reading, start with Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana. I read this book when I was sixteen it single handedly changed my life for the better. This book taught me how to meditate, and gave me all the tools and information needed to build a solid foundation of practice.
For Auditory Learners: There are now a multitude of fantastic apps and courses available that can teach you meditation. I highly recommend Waking up with Sam Harris. This course (delivered via mobile app) explains mediation from an entirely secular viewpoint, and will give you the depth and practice to become an experienced meditator.
For the Hands-on Learners: If you prefer to learn-by-doing in a group setting, I highly recommend attending meditation retreat. I’ve attended multiple meditation retreats, and my practice has benefited significantly from each one. A retreat will give you great in-person instruction, as well as multiple hours of meditation experience per day. A 2-3 day retreat is also a great way to get started with this new habit. Or, attending a ten day retreat can help you dive even deeper into this practice. Note: meditation retreats are often taught in a Buddhist context. However you don’t need to be or become a Buddhist to attend, and the meditation practices you learn can still be practiced in a secular manner.